Why did you become a scientist?
Well, I grew up playing music and starting writing songs at a fairly early age in the pop rock genre. And when I was in college at Yale, I studied drama and music, and was a biology major. And I was very interested in understanding brain mechanisms of behavior. And when I learned that there in fact was a science to trying to understand music perception and cognition, I seized the opportunity to really pursue those and combine them in my career. Ultimately, I trained in neurology and became a neurologist at New York Hospital, and now at Massachusetts General Hospital. And there are a lot of very interesting questions in trying to understand what the brain mechanisms are that are responsible for something that comes so naturally to all of us being able to apprehend the emotion and meaning in music.
Is the appreciation of music innate or learned?
Music appreciation as you and I experience it in everyday life is learned. What we've been exposed to, the associations that we have with music, what our personalities are, where we're coming from -- those all very heavily influence the kind of music that we like to buy when we go to Tower Records. But all of us are born into the world with the capacity to apprehend the emotion and meaning in music. And there have been a considerable number of experiments done in infants that show that with a minimal amount, if any, exposure to music in their lives they showed sensitivities to some of the same musical structures that we experience as adults. We can't forget the natural affinity that we all have at a very early age even before we develop our tastes, and before we identify with different subcultures and peer groups that might lead us to like one music over another. There's something basic about the ability to extract pitch and melody and harmony and rhythm that we all experience very early on in our lives.
Why do you think music is a universally shared human experience?
I think that music encompasses all aspects of our life. Everything from athletic to pure sensory experience to all kinds of higher level organizing abilities that we have. And I just keep being more and more impressed that the whole brain and the whole body -- it's one activity. Maybe there are others too, but it's certainly an activity in which our whole humanness cooperates and participates.
What are the key developments in your field?
The program that we're working on right now is one which I have great interest, and that's to say the relationship of CAT scanning and positron emission tomography to a better understanding of how music is created, how music is performed, and how it's perceived. I want to make sure that in the work of a brilliant, young neurobiologist like Mark Tramo, the right questions are being asked and that his research is going down a positive track. Because I believe if we understood better how the human brain works, it would not only be better for musical instruction in the United States and throughout the world, but that that contribution would also help us understand how human function goes on generally. I think, for example, that playing the piano or the organ or the violin at a very high level of technical accomplishment is about as complex a neurobiological function as the human body has conquered. I mean, hitting fastballs is something that you do in a batting cage once every two minutes, but once you start the last movement of the Brahms B-flat major concerto with an orchestra, there is no stopping.
Should public money be used to support the arts?
That there has been some nagging doubt about whether it's a good idea to put any public money behind the arts in the United States. There is always a possibility of misusing practically anything, but there's so much good that can be done through the arts and persuading not only ourselves, as Americans, that this is a great country but the rest of the world. I think what September 11 showed is that we've got a tremendous public relations problem in part of the world in interpreting to, at least the Islamic part of the world, what the United States stands for and is about. American theatre could achieve that. I have the impression that a lot of the world thinks that of the United States wrongly, in my view, as sex and violence and consumerism and egocentric and not worried about poverty in the rest of the world. And there's something in all that, but that doesn't begin to describe what a wonderful and compassionate and generous country this is.